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Book Review: The End of Overeating

May 9, 2012

Let me begin by saying that I don’t believe a UFO landed in Roswell or that Elvis is still alive.  I do, however, believe the food industry has hijacked the brains of millions of Americans.

I know it sounds a little far-fetched, and maybe “hijacked” is too dramatic a word.  However, Dr. David Kessler (the former FDA commissioner who reinvented the food label and tackled the tobacco industry) made a believer out of me, and that’s not easy to do.  One of my favorite sayings:  I’m from Missouri... the Show Me State.  I actually grew up in Nebraska, but you get the point.

Kessler begins by talking about why people overeat.  “When we put food rich in sugar, fat, and salt in our mouths, we stimulate neurons, which are the basic cells of the brain.  Neurons are connected in circuits and communicate with one another to create feelings, store information, and control behavior.  They respond to the rewarding foods by firing electrical signals and releasing chemicals... We say those neurons are ‘encoded’ for palatability.”  Here’s why that matters:  Encoding means the neuron shows a preference by firing more.  Which means you crave it more.  Uh oh.  And we haven’t even talked about dopamine or habit-driven behavior yet.

Half way through The End of Overeating, I felt like I was beginning to understand what the food industry knows when it tells us, “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

In the final three sections of the book, Kessler offers theoretical and practical solutions to the problem of overeating.  Two of his suggestions really resonated with me:

Have an alternate plan.  Kessler talks about his habit of stopping for fried dumplings at the San Francisco airport.  He’s retrained himself to take an alternate route through the airport so he doesn’t walk by them.  In my case, I almost can’t go into Quacks for a cup of coffee without getting a pastry.  And I like to drink a hot, fresh cup of coffee when I get to work in the morning.  I ended up buying a K-Cup machine for the gym, so I now skip the coffee shop altogether.

 Limit your exposure.  Kessler suggests that if you can’t avoid it, limit the amount of time you’re exposed to it.  If I can walk straight to the register and order a black coffee to go, I’m golden.  The longer I stand in line at Quacks, the greater the odds I leave with a pastry.

Kessler changed the way I look at food, and more importantly, he helped me understand why eating a single potato chip seems, well, almost impossible.  And for me, understanding “why” is the first step in changing my behavior.

If you only read one book this year on the topic of food, nutrition, or healthy eating - make it The End of Overeating.  You’ll be glad you did.

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